The apartment was still bare. No posters, no paintings, not even curtains. Just plain white walls. Seri had brought this up with Shouko, but she didn’t seem to mind.166Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡHhjJJYnXBf
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Because there was no clock, Seri had to look at her dainty golden watch. She sighed, nervously twirling a strand of her long purplish-brown hair. It was getting late.
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Kneeling by the low table like a proper lady, she returned her attention to the magazine in her hand. She used to read expensive foreign fashion magazines her mother had lying around the mansion, but she much preferred local magazines such as this.
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Her heart leapt as she heard the door swing open. Shouko’s blonde hair, usually buoyant in its messiness, was drooping. She took a few moments to breathe before entering the apartment properly. Her head was down and her shoulders were low. She swayed towards her futon, also plain.
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Seri stood up, almost jumping. ‘You’re home! I brought some nikuman so we can have that with our-’
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Instead of answering, Shouko smiled weakly and flopped onto the futon.
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‘Shouko?’ Seri asked, her voice as weak as Shouko’s smile. She leaned over the futon and heard snoring. With a gentle smile, she pulled the quilt over Shouko and brushed her fingers over her cheek.
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As she left the apartment to head home, Seri’s smile dropped.
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And so the pattern began.
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‘Shouko, I discovered this new flavour of ice cream! I thought we could have it for des-’
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‘Sakurako-senpai helped me make these chocolates-’
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‘I thought I’d cheer you up with a nice hot meal-’
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Seri sat by Shouko’s futon, a wistful frown on her face. This time she decided to stay in the apartment until Shouko woke up. Dinner, as it turned out, did a terrible job of cheering people up. Or perhaps that was because Seri was eating alone.
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After dinner, Seri settled next to Shouko, reading the magazine. She was desperate enough for mental stimulation that she even began reading the advertisements.
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Finally, she heard the snoring stop. She turned her head and saw Shouko jerk upwards.
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‘Huh? What I miss?’ Shouko’s voice was a little rough and gravelly, but Seri loved it.
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Seri giggled. ‘Have a nice dream, Sleeping Beauty?’ She took the time to appreciate how Shouko looked in her suit, as messy as it was in the futon.
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Shouko lied back down and stretched her arms. ‘Ha! As if! I dreamed I could actually finish a shift on time instead of having to do overtime.’
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‘That sounds like a nice dream to me,’ Seri muttered, her eyes downcast. ‘We need some time to ourselves, you know.’
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Shouko turned her body and rested her head on her hand, her elbow digging into the futon. She nodded.
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‘I’m open to suggestions.’
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Seri turned the page backwards in her magazine until she reached a page with a big photo of a November illumination festival. The lights were spellbinding and the photograph managed to transport Seri to a beautiful place she knew she had to go.
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Shouko looked at the details of this advertisement, scooting closer to Seri. The other girl’s cheeks grew hot. Despite them having been together for so long, Seri was still not used to the sensation of Shouko being close to her. It was warm and comforting, but it also set her nerves aflame and she became ever-aware of both girls’ breathing.
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‘Tomorrow?’ Shouko asked.
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Seri gleefully held her hands up in little fists. ‘Yes! It’s perfect! It’s at a local park and it’s supposed to be quite the spectacle!’ She clasped her hands together and rubbed her cheek against them. Shouko could practically see the hearts rising from Seri’s body. ‘There’ll be lights, the view of the park lit up a night, hot food to eat and fun performances! All things we can enjoy together!’
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Shouko sat up, her arm dangling over her raised knee. ‘Wow, sounds like you really wanna do this thing. All right, then. No sweat! Let’s go together. How about we meet at the park at 6?’
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Seri crossed her arms and pouted. ‘Promise?’
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Shouko grinned and kissed her on the cheek.
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At 5 PM at the TV studio, Shouko wiped the sweat off her forehead. ‘Phew! Finally! All done.’
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She was heading to the exit when she heard a nasal shout. ‘Akashi-san! Where do you think you’re going?’
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Shouko gingerly turned her head. ‘Uh...’
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The voice belonged to a tall, skinny middle-aged woman with a tight bun and jumbo glasses. ‘Trying to sneak off again? How lazy!’ She yelled, pointing her clipboard at Shouko.
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Shouko rubbed the back of her neck. ‘Well, my shift is over.’
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‘Like hell it is! You still have that Noh mask to locate for tomorrow’s show!’
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‘Oh, come on!’
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‘You better find that Noh mask before 5 AM tomorrow, and all the shops close at 6 tonight! You did track, didn’t you? Run!’
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Shouko bowed her head. ‘Yes, ma’am.’ She pulled out her phone and began her search for costume stores. ‘Yes? Hello? I know it’s last-minute, but do- Yes, I know business hours end soon. I’m with a TV station and our costume department badly needs a Noh mask. Yes! A Noh Mask! You know, those- Seriously? Not even one?’
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Eventually, Shouko decided that making phone calls was a waste of time. She sprinted to every store she could find, muttering curse words to a boss who wouldn’t head them. She would have enjoyed the feeling of cold air racing through her suit and the memories of the high school track team they brought with them, but she was too distracted by the task and the stress it brought with it.
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Every store was either already closed or sold old out of their Noh masks. 5 PM became 5:20, then 5:32, 5:58 and finally 6:15, with no Noh masks in sight.
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Shouko dropped to the ground, her hands scraping against the concrete. She did everything she could not to cry in public, but passersby in the busy street glared at her for getting in their way.
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‘It’s over. It’s all over.’
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She considered lying down in a ball on the concrete when she heard a beep in her pocket that woke her out of her funk. She took it out and saw the time and battery at 2 per cent, screaming internally but answering the call.
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‘Seri? Seri? Listen, I-’ The phone was quiet. ‘Oh, she hung up.’ Seri didn’t hang up. Shouko’s phone screen was completely black.
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Meanwhile, at the festival, Seri could barely enjoy the bright lily-shaped lights floating on the pond in front of her. Shouko’s sudden hanging-up set a flame behind Seri’s eyes, but she tried to reason with herself. Maybe Shouko’s phone reception went kaput.
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She wondered if Shouko was already there but couldn’t find her. She walked up to an old couple with their arms linked together.
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‘Um, excuse me, sir?’ she asked the man. ‘Have you seen a woman around my age with bright blonde hair?’ The man shook his head. Seri bowed. ‘Sorry to disturb you. Good evening.’
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When Shouko reached the park, she ran past the trees with fairy lights as fast as she could with all the people around. She had to push through some people and felt a twinge of guilt, but Seri’s smile was her main priority.
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She caught a glimpse of purplish-brown hair and rushed to the girl. ‘Seri?’ No response. ‘Seri!’ She tapped her on the shoulder.
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The girl jumped in shock and turned her head. It was an elderly woman with dyed hair. Shouko bowed. ‘Sorry, wrong person.’ She heard a familiar voice and followed it.
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Seri shivered at the cold wind that whirled red leaves around her. Her hands were shaking, but not from the cold. Her shoulders drooped under the weight of her struggle not to cry. She began her walk out of the park.
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‘You said you were looking for someone? Young woman? Blonde? Gorgeous?’
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The weight on Seri’s shoulders disappeared like magic. She beamed and turned her head. Shouko was huffing and puffing like she had just finished one of her races. ‘Yo,’ She said with a breathy voice and a big, goofy grin.
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Seri leapt into a bear hug. ‘You came!’
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As she replied, Shouko petted the other girl’s hair. ‘Of course! You’d think I’d miss the chance to see you, babe?’
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‘But you were-’
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Shouko began her long explanation about what happened. Seri’s eyes were wide. ‘Huh? Noh mask?’
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She covered her mouth and looked down, her shoulders shaking. A jolt of fear dashed through Shouko’s body.
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‘It doesn’t matter, Seri,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t find it anyway, so...’
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She shut up when she heard the delectable sound of melodic laughter. She went through a range of emotions, starting with attraction, then confusion and finally annoyance.
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She narrowed her eyes at Seri. ‘Am I a joke to you?’
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Seri turned until she and Shouko were facing the same direction before grabbing her arm and resting her head on her shoulder.
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‘I’m just so happy to be here with you.’
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The two strolled through the bright lights in vivid colours and various shapes. The air was cool but their bodies were warm. Despite the cacophony of chatter, laughter and sizzling food surrounding them, they could still hear each other’s slow, calm breaths.
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At one point, Shouko found a stall that sold a range of Noh masks.166Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡq0pbhDpU6T